WRESTLING is one of the oldest forms of combat in the world.
The grappling art, which involves two people attempting to gain and maintain a superior position through a variety of techniques, dates way back to the ancient Greeks, where it was the focal sport in the Olympics Games thousands of years ago.
It has achieved global success thanks to wrestlers like Punjabi star The Great Khali and Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle, who have performed in front of huge crowds across the UK and US in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Recently the sport, which involves clinches, throws, take-downs and joint locks to immobilise opponents, has enjoyed a revival.
Martial arts practitioners and teachers have told Eastern Eye how they are witnessing an exodus of the traditional styles such as boxing, karate, taekwondo and Muay Thai in favour of the grappling arts. Mixed Martial arts (MMA) competitions and the more famous Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) – where competitors fight in an octagonshaped ring using a variety of martial arts moves – is mostly responsible for this.
Aired first in 1990s, viewers and fight enthusiasts were amazed when they witnessed grappling expert Royce Gracie winning against often much larger opponents in the early UFC tournaments.
The show proved its worth commercially with 86,592 TV subscribers on pay-per-view; that number is now up to nearly four million. Grappling has since become a staple art for many fighters and is largely credited for bringing widespread attention to the importance of ground fighting or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as it more popularly known. Gracie is part of the famous Gracie family who founded BJJ, a variation of the Japanese martial art Jiu-Jitsu. The art form was originally used by the Samurai in feudal Japan when they couldn’t use their weapons.
The idea for BJJ, which is known as the gentle art, was formed around the premise that on the ground, physical strength can be offset or enhanced by an experienced grappler who knows how to maximise force using mechanical advantage instead of pure physical strength.
For many Asians who are involved in grappling sports such as kabbadi or mud wrestling, practising BJJ was a natural development.
Property developer Lakhwinder Sekhon trains and teaches around 35 students every week at the Norwood Hall Khalsa School in Southall, west London.
The 33-year-old, who teaches mixed martial arts which includes Muay Thai, submission wrestling and BJJ, is a competitor for the Super Fight League (SFL), India’s answer to the UFC. SFL was founded by Bollywood superstar Sanjay Dutt and sports enthusiast and businessman Raj Kundra, the husband of actress Shilpa Shetty.
Boxing champion Amir Khan has seen SFL’s potential and also plans on being involved in the project as the new co-owner of the promotion, “I’ve made an investment with SFL because I really do believe in it,” Khan said.
“Obviously, we have things to do yet, we have to crack the American market and give them a taste of what we do. This is the fastest growing sport in the world, It definitely gives boxing a good run for its money.”
Sekhon, who is undefeated in three SFL fights, agrees.
“With the rise of UFC and its promotion, it has shown people they can mix it up,” he told EE.
“People are doing striking and now moving onto wrestling. It’s bridging the gap between the sports and puts it all together.”
Sekhon said Asians are a minority in wrestling forms such as BJJ, but in recent years he has seen a “massive rise” in the number of them taking it up.
“My class is predominately Asians. Realistically if you think about the overall spectrum, we’re still a minority in terms of access to the sport. However because of contact sports like kabbadi and mud wrestling, you see a lot of Indians in that sport.” Sekhon said Indians from villages in Punjab had strong builds which are ideal for grappling.
“A lot of our forefathers were used to doing manual labour, and over time their genetics got strong. “By eating a lot of fresh vegetables daily and a lot of manual labour, that just transposed to bigger stronger genetics which passed on.” But it’s the simplicity of grappling, Sekhon explained, which attracts many Indians back home and in the UK.
“Wrestling is a big sport for our people. It’s also a natural way of fighting. If you think about the sport of wrestling, what do you technically use? You use another person to train with and you use a mat. “Back home a mud pit is where you get your frustration out and you’re not physical hurting the guy with strikes. With striking you need gloves, head-guards, chin-guards, all this equipment. But back home anyone can do wrestling without any equipment,” he said.
Luiz Ribeiro, a black belt who teaches boxing, MMA and BJJ at London Fight Factory in east London, told EE you don’t have to be strong to restrain an opponent in BJJ.
He said: “With a lot of people who do only standup martial arts, the fight is over once their opponent gets them on the floor. You still see this in some MMA fights. That’s why a lot of people who are interested in MMA start studying Jiu Jitsu.”
Ribeiro has around 400 students who attend his classes, many of them from abroad.
“I don’t ask people where they’re from because for me everybody is the same, regardless of their former coach, colour of skin or religion.”
The flags of various countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia are draped on the walls of the London Fight Factory, representing the diversity of the club.
“If someone passes by, they can at least see that someone was here from where they’re from. I put my Brazilian flag up first and people said: ‘Why was there just a Brazilian flag?’ I said I’m Brazilian and it represent my seeds. So then everybody decided to put up their flags.
“I try to use it as a motivation when they’re doing the warm-up. When someone is breaking down, thinking to stop and quit, I tell them to look at the flag and country behind them. “Everybody wants to represent their country in some way. In war, in Olympics, in football; everybody has pride for their country. I squeeze that last drop of energy out of them.”
Ribeiro said he is shocked at the number of women joining his classes. “I get surprised because it has a high risk of injury. I ask the girls if they know what wrestling is. They say ‘no’. I ask if they’ve seen it, they say ‘no’.
“BJJ gives priority to getting a dominant position so that’s why I think girls are taking it up more because it gives them an advantage.” In some parts of the country, BJJ has also proved to be helping to build bridges between different communities.
Delroy McDowell, who teaches in Luton, runs the Morefire Icon BJJ team where a third of its members come from an Asian background. McDowell is a brown belt in BJJ and originally from Birmingham.
In 2010 he was invited to Luton for a workshop by a youth charity to teach teens.
He said: “I was working a four day week at the time and was so impressed by the teens that I decided to give up my free day and start teaching them once a week. As they developed their skills and their interest in BJJ grew, they asked if we could start an official club. So with their help we set up Morefire BJJ.”
As numbers grew, McDowell however noticed there were some people who weren’t keen on mixing with other members.
“There were sub-groups within the members as people weren’t all that keen to mix without being prompted – not something I was used to being from a very diverse and multicultural Birmingham myself,” he said.
“As time passed, I noticed that members were talking, interacting more and even meeting socially outside of training. This was around the time that Luton was becoming notorious on the national news for many negative issues. So to see a little community building happening among young men in Luton was most gratifying.”
He said Morefire BJJ members not only get to network socially with people of other races and beliefs but also those of other age groups within the community. “People with wider cultural and travel experiences, people who may be educated, managers, tradesmen and business owners; I have a firm belief that by being exposed to those members, we all can become inspired to better ourselves.”
For BJJ practitioner Germaine Gill, the idea that a smaller person can immobolise a much bigger person using little energy attracted him to the art.
The 26-year-old Aerospace engineer, who trains with Morefire BJJ, started off his martial arts journey with taekwondo and moved onto BJJ after watching UFC at home.
“Years ago my uncle bought UFC on pay-perview but I wasn’t allowed up to watch it because it was a school night, so I sat on the stairs and I watched it through the banister.
“It was style versus style back in the day. Royce Gracie’s style was Jiu-jitsu. He was the smallest guy in the competition in no holds barred fighting. He managed to beat everybody with submission. This guy was tiny and he smashed all these big guys.”
Gill recalled how he was exposed to grappling as a young boy on a visit to a Sikh temple.
“I used to go to the Sikh temple with my uncle every other Sunday to learn Punjabi. In the gurdwara, they would have people fighting with swords and doing some sort of grappling. This was way before I knew of Jiu- Jitsu. It was always interesting to watch.”
After several months of searching for BJJ classes, Gill managed to find one he could go to regularly. Seven years into the art, he is now a purple belt (the third belt in BJJ) and one of the country’s best practioners in his division, having won the English Open in 2011.
“Jiu-Jitsu has changed my life so much. I would have just been a product of my own environment if I didn’t have it. I would have been sucked up by drugs and crime, but Jiu-Jitsu gave me focus.
“It keeps me fit and healthy. If I can’t beat a person in Jiu-Jitsui, I will re-evaluate it and figure a way to beat them. There’s always a way. I use that in life as well. I apply my Jiu-jitsu principles into life.”
Bablu Choudhury, an IT consultant who also trains at the Morefire BJJ team, said he did BJJ for self defence.
“I watched a mixed martial arts competition many years ago and the winning champion was a smaller and weaker guy, kind of like me. He overcame and successfully defeated bigger and stronger opponents using Brazilian Jiu-jitsu techniques. Ever since then I wanted to train BJJ,” he said.
The 33-year-old, who won first place in the advanced division at the BJJ English Open 2015 earlier this year, added the art has given him a healthier perspective in life.
“BJJ has definitely helped me get into the best shape of my life, not only have I lost weight, I’ve also gotten extremely flexible and gained a lot of strength,” Choudhury said.
“BJJ has taught me to be confident, humble, patient, and face challenges inside and outside the gym with a strategist mindset. For me, it’s more than a martial art or a sport, it is a lifestyle.”